June 2020


The last word on George Pell

By Anne Manne
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
The royal commission’s damning verdict on what Pell knew about child sexual abuse in the Church

What did Cardinal George Pell know about child sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic clergy, when did he know it, and what did he do about it?  

For years now, there have been two separate questions of culpability concerning Cardinal Pell. The first, whether he was guilty of the crime of sexually assaulting two boys in Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996 and 1997, riveted and divided the nation during the sensational events of Pell’s trial, his conviction and imprisonment, and his failed attempt to have his conviction quashed by the Victorian Court of Appeal. On April 7 this year, the unanimous High Court decision to acquit him on all charges ended it all. 

As Pell supporters rejoiced, child sexual abuse survivors expressed anguish. Victorian premier Daniel Andrews made no comment on the High Court decision, but expressed the views of many in the community when he said simply to Victim J, “I see you. I hear you. I believe you.”

Not being seen, heard or believed was the fate of so many victims of institutional child sexual abuse. This constitutes the second crucial question concerning Cardinal Pell’s culpability: his role in the response of the Catholic Church to child sexual abuse. In the royal commission volumes, everything concerning this grave matter was blacked out, to avoid prejudicing any court. Cardinal Pell told the royal commission that he knew nothing and was “deceived” in a world “of crimes and cover-ups”, where he was deliberately kept in the dark by others because he was known to be the kind of chap who “disturbed the status quo”. Following Pell’s acquittal, the royal commission released its findings on these claims. 

Its conclusion is straightforward: Pell knew. He was not deceived. Pell’s claims to have been kept in the dark were “implausible”. He knew about notorious paedophile Gerald Ridsdale’s offending as early as 1973, and was concerned about “the prudence of allowing Ridsdale to take boys on overnight camps. The most likely reason for this, as Cardinal Pell acknowledged, was the possibility that if priests were one-on-one with a child then they could sexually abuse a child or at least provoke gossip …”  

Just what Ridsdale might do to a child on an overnight stay was revealed in a recent court case. On May 14 this year, Ridsdale pleaded guilty to the sexual abuse of yet more children during the 1970s, some as young as seven. He has now been convicted for 179 offences against 69 children. Sentenced to another 10 years, some to be served concurrently, Ridsdale will serve 34 years. Judge Mullaly’s devastating judgement describes how Ridsdale took a 12-year-old boy to Apollo Bay, Victoria, during the Christmas holidays of 1974. He gave the boy more than four cans of beer, making him very drunk. The boy woke up in bed naked, to find Ridsdale forcibly “penetrating his anus. You continued to do that dreadful act, causing intense pain to the victim, until you ejaculated. You then just got up and left him bleeding from his anus and distraught.”   

It is only by confronting the brute reality of what happened to victims – “abuse” is altogether too pallid and vague a word – that we can understand the moral enormity and impact of what the royal commissioners have called the “inexcusable” conduct on the part of those in the Church who acted as protectors of offenders such as Ridsdale. Ridsdale is known to have begun offending in Ballarat, as early as 1961 when he was first ordained. He raped children all over Victoria until at least 1988. Nothing was done. He even abused kids while under “treatment” in the Melbourne suburb of Elsternwick, in Sydney, and in Jemez Springs, New Mexico. Why wasn’t he stopped in his vicious tracks? 

The answer lies in the behaviour of Bishop Ronald Mulkearns of the Ballarat diocese, and his advisory body, the College of Consultors. Under the euphemism “Staffing”, the bishop met with the College of Consultors who repeatedly agreed to move Ridsdale on to new posts, often in quick succession. Each time, Ridsdale violated fresh crops of children. In 1982, Pell was a consultor when they had to consider why Ridsdale was moving yet again from Mortlake to the Catholic Enquiry Centre in Sydney. In Mortlake, Ridsdale abused multiple children and was living with Paul Levey, then 14, and sexually assaulting him daily. 

Cardinal Pell denied to the royal commission that the College of Consultors was ever told of the real reason Ridsdale moved from Mortlake or had so many sudden moves. Contrary to this, the commission found: “Bishop Mulkearns did not deceive his consultors. Cardinal Pell’s evidence that ‘paedophilia was not mentioned’ and that the ‘true’ reason was not given is not accepted … Bishop Mulkearns told the consultors that it was necessary to move Ridsdale … because of complaints that he had sexually abused children. A contrary position is not tenable … It follows that the conduct of any consultor … who agreed to move Ridsdale, or indeed any priest, with knowledge of allegations of child sexual abuse made against them, is unacceptable.”

The commission gives a devastating indictment of the “catastrophic failure” on the part of senior clergy in the Ballarat diocese, including Pell, “over decades, to effectively respond to sexual abuse of children by its priests”. It caused “suffering and often irreparable harm [that] … could have been avoided if the Church had acted in the interests of children rather than in its own interest … the avoidance of scandal, the maintenance of the reputation of the Church and loyalty to priests alone determined the response.” Behaviour with abusing priests was “remarkably and disturbingly similar”. And only when a priest’s behaviour might become “widely known” did anything happen. 

Priestly offenders were not reported to police. Instead they were “invariably” moved on, to a new distant parish to whom “no warning was given”, and where they offended again. No restrictions were placed on them. They had no supervision. Sexually abusive priests were treated as if they and their church were above the law. When things got hot they were sent away for a period of “treatment”, which consisted of “reflection” or “study” before moving to a new parish and more victims. So-called treatment was provided by preferably Catholic clergy who were also psychiatrists or psychologists. According to the commission, some “also put the reputation of the church above any professional obligations”. 

On the key question as to whether Pell and the College of Consultors were deceived, the royal commission is emphatic: “we do not agree that Bishop Mulkearns consistently deliberately withheld information from, or deceived, his consultors. We have found that Bishop Mulkearns discussed allegations about priests with his consultors.” In contrast to the knowledge of the “bishop’s close advisors”, some parishes were lied to about why their priest was transferred “following allegations or complaints of child sexual abuse by that priest. In no case were parishes told the true reason. The Church parties accepted this.”  

When Pell was promoted to the position of auxiliary bishop, in the Melbourne diocese, in 1987, he had another chance to prove just how “decisive” and “likely to disturb the status quo” he was. There were several aggressive paedophile priests within the regions he was responsible for. One of them was Father Peter Searson in the Doveton parish. Seriously disturbed, Searson was dangerous. He got children to put their head between his legs while taking confession. He recorded the most titillating ones. A girl ran out of the confessional box screaming after Searson molested her. He lurked in the boys’ toilets at the local Catholic school; killed a cat in front of children by grabbing it by the tail and throwing it over the fence; pointed a gun at children; held a knife to a child’s chest; and dragged children to look at a dead body in a coffin. Searson stabbed a bird to death with a screwdriver in front of children. In one strange exchange in Rome, when Gail Furness, counsel assisting, put it to Pell that he knew about this incident, he agreed he knew about this “bizarre happening” but wondered if the “bird was already dead”. “Does that matter?” asked an incredulous Furness. “Not really. Not really,” Pell replied. 

In the absence of action by Church authorities, teachers struggled to keep children safe, and parents were beside themselves with worry. A delegation of teachers confronted Pell about Searson, but he complained it was “non-specific”. In his evidence, Pell blamed it all on the Catholic Education Office keeping the true story from him. Why would it do that, the commission asked, when it had already complained to the archbishop about Searson itself? Pell grudgingly acknowledged to the commission that in retrospect, perhaps he could have been “a bit more pushy”. 

About this failure to act, the commission is unequivocal. “We do not accept any qualification that this conclusion is only appreciable in retrospect. On the basis of what was known to Bishop Pell in 1989, it ought to have been obvious to him at the time. He should have advised the Archbishop to remove Father Searson and he did not do so.” It was not until Pell was archbishop in 1997 that he finally placed Searson on “administrative leave”.

Like Ridsdale, the consequences of those in authority not stopping Searson were dire. In 1992, Searson went on to rape a boy, and did so for several years. He never faced justice, dying in 2009. 

Pell expressed his “surprise” at the commission’s findings and stated that they are “not based in evidence”. This claim is astonishing. The findings concerning Pell are based on three copious volumes of exceptionally careful and cautious evaluation of all the evidence presented to it. In some instances, the commissioners believe Pell’s account over others. The witness BWE gave evidence that, while attending a funeral, he overheard Pell say to another priest about Ridsdale, “Huh, huh, I think Gerry’s been rooting boys again.” The royal commission says, based on Pell’s evidence, that the event as described is “unlikely to have occurred”. They also accept Cardinal Pell’s word over Gerald Ridsdale’s nephew, David, who claimed that Pell had “offered him a bribe” to keep him quiet. They assert that David may have misinterpreted Pell’s offer of assistance. They do, however, accept Timothy Green’s evidence that in the changing rooms of the Eureka swimming pool in Ballarat he warned Pell about another paedophile at St Patrick’s school, Edward Dowlan, touching boys. The commission accepted that Pell replied, “Don’t be ridiculous,” and walked away.

Predators require protectors to flourish. Peter O’Brien, a solicitor who has represented victims before the commission, says, “The findings are extremely damning and suggest criminal, not only immoral, misconduct. At the very least there must be a criminal investigation.” The matter has been referred to Victoria Police. 

However, despite many adverse findings by the commission, not just against the Catholic Church but also against the Anglicans and other institutions, there has been only one successful conviction for concealing child sexual abuse: former archbishop Philip Wilson, when he was a priest in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese in New South Wales. That conviction was overturned on appeal. 

The royal commission has done a superb job of bearing witness to the suffering endured by victims of child sexual abuse and raising our consciousness about the terrible consequences. But what happens after an adverse finding? While the right in Australia continues to shriek about a witch-hunt, not one person who has been found to have lied to the commission or covered up child sexual abuse has received so much as a rap across the knuckles, let alone been burned at the stake. An invisible forcefield has protected high-status individuals from facing the consequences of their actions. 

The stakes could not be higher. The harm done by not stopping Ridsdale, Searson and the rest as soon as it was known is immense. Paedophiles only flourish and do their very great harm in institutions because of determined inattention, wilful blindness and self-interested cover-ups by the rackets shielding them. It is vital that the crime of concealing child sexual abuse is punished by law, not just with social opprobrium. Anything less is an abject failure and betrayal of the victims of child sexual abuse. 


Correction: The original print publication of this article incorrectly described Philip Wilson as the bishop of the Maitland-Newcastle diocese at the time of the alleged offences. He was a priest.

Anne Manne

Anne Manne is the author of Motherhood, the Quarterly Essay ‘Love & Money’ and the memoir So This Is Life. Her most recent book is The Life of I: The new culture of narcissism.

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